If you’re expecting a straightforward biography of Mister Rogers, you might be disappointed with the new film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” If, however, you hope to be inspired by a story about the way Mister Rogers still affects the world today, you will love this film.
My heart fluttered when the film opened with Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) stepping onto his set and bursting into the theme song. Director Marielle Heller wanted to make sure that the ‘show portions’ of the film looked and felt as much like the original show as possible and she nailed it. Another whimsical touch she employed was using the same style of miniature model that were used in the show’s Land of Make-Believe to transition the audience from place to place.
As Mister Rogers changes from sport jacket to red cardigan and sneakers, he also presents a picture board with a bunch of closed doors. He introduces some familiar friends from the show as he opens each door. Then a shocking photo appears behind one door. It’s a man with a scowl who looks like he’s been in a bar fight. Mister Rogers explains that this is his new friend, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), and he seems to be having a hard time with forgiveness.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (TriStar Pictures)
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” scripted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is based on the 1998 article from Esquire magazine written by Tom Junod (upon whom Lloyd Vogel is loosely based). Lloyd is an investigative journalist who has a reputation for his negative stories. When his editor (Christine Lahti) asks him to contribute to a story about heroes they plan on running, he tells her that’s not his thing, but she insists. She wants him to interview Fred Rogers, who is the only subject who would agree to meet with him. The assignment would change his life.
Lloyd flies to Pittsburg where Mister Rogers’ show is filming and when he tries to ask probing questions, Mister Rogers asks him questions right back. Fred asks how Lloyd came by the cuts on his face. At first, Lloyd insists that it was a play at the plate, but Fred continues to prod and Lloyd eventually tells the truth that he got in a fight with his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), at his sister, Lorraine’s (Tammy Blanchard), third wedding. Jerry had left Lloyd and Lorraine as children when their mother got sick. Lloyd has held a grudge ever since.
As Lloyd and Fred spend more and more time together, Lloyd begins to realize that Fred’s kindness is not an act. In fact, it’s genuine as shown when a whole subway car full of people start singing the theme song to Mister Rogers and he sings right along, delighting in the whole thing. This causes Lloyd, a new father, to consider reconciling with his own father.
Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (TriStar Pictures)
Like last year’s documentary film on Mister Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (click here for our review), this new film makes sure audiences know that Fred himself was not perfect. He got angry just like everyone else does but he also knew how to deal with his anger constructively, choosing to swim out anger’s energy or pound on the bass keys of his piano.
Much virtual ink has already been spilled regarding Tom Hanks’s spot-on portrayal of the beloved children’s show host. His performance may just garner him a sixth Oscar nomination. The supporting cast basks in his light. Rhys is convincing as he allows the audience to experience Vogel’s struggles to acknowledge and deal with his anger and resentment towards his Dad. As Lloyd’s loyal wife, Andrea, Susan Kelechi Watson steals each scene she’s in, developing her own friendship with Fred as he does what he can to help her husband.
What’s most moving about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is that we could all stand in Lloyd’s shoes. The film is a gentle reminder that we all have issues (from our past or present) that we may need to address in order to move forward in our lives. Just as Mister Rogers encouraged children to talk about their feelings through his show, adults need to do the same. The only way to move forward is to talk about our issues and the feelings surrounding them, in a safe environment, of course. In the film, Vogel and his family members fall silent when a difficult topic comes to the fore. Mister Rogers’s simple mantra, “mentioned is manageable” helps them (and us) realize that when uncomfortable feelings arise, talking about them goes a long way toward being able to live in healing, peace, and hope.
The values presented to millions of public television viewers between 1968 and 2001 (and continuing in the spin-off show, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”) in a simple and clear manner by Mister Rogers could surely use a comeback in our society today.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” lets us all know that healing, peace, and hope is still possible.